Lyrical Epic: Rimsky-Korsakov's 'The Tsar's Bride'

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Rimsky-Korsakov's 'The Tsar's Bride' at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. i i

hide captionRimsky-Korsakov's 'The Tsar's Bride' at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Bill Cooper/courtesy of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Rimsky-Korsakov's 'The Tsar's Bride' at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Rimsky-Korsakov's 'The Tsar's Bride' at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Bill Cooper/courtesy of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

In 1939, the great Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein made a splash in Hollywood with the American release of his sweeping historical epic Alexander Nevsky. Then he followed it up in the '40s with the even more sprawling, three-part drama Ivan the Terrible.

To many American movie buffs, these films surely seemed new and exotic, with their colorful Russian settings and dark, psychological undertones. Opera fans, on the other hand, may have recognized the movies as part of a theatrical trend dating back to the previous century.

In the mid-1800s, a group of young composers got together in St. Petersburg. Now known as "The Mighty Handful," their goal was to establish a distinctly Russian school of composing, and Russian history was one of their most important tools.

The Hit Single

One beautiful example of the opera's lyrical, Italianate vocal writing is heard in the second act aria that introduces Marfa (soprano Marina Poplavskaya). In a floating, almost bel canto style, she sings longingly of the coming reunion with her beloved Likov.

When it comes to opera, the most famous product of their efforts is Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Other members of the group also pitched in — notably Alexander Borodin with Prince Igor. And there was another, less familiar contribution from a composer not known for somber, historical dramas: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

The B Side

Near the end of Act Two, Bomelius agrees to help Lyubasha (mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova), but the price for his assistance is Lyubasha herself. She decides to accept his terms and sings this despairing aria, recognizing the shameful situation to which Gryaznoy has driven her.

Though Rimsky-Korsakov is familiar to many music lovers for his brilliantly orchestrated concert music — including the popular symphonic poem Scheherazade — he also wrote a dozen or so operas. Many of them are showy concoctions based on fantastic stories from Russian folklore and legend. But his 1899 opera The Tsar's Bride is something else altogether. It's a complex, psychological drama, steeped in history and driven by one of the same characters that later inspired Eisenstein: the 16th-century Tsar Ivan IV (better known in the English-speaking world as Ivan the Terrible). It's also a fascinating attempt by a distinctly Russian composer to compose an opera leaning heavily on a lyrical, almost Italian style of vocal writing.

The story of The Tsar's Bride speculates about a single, mysterious event during Ivan's long reign — his brief marriage to Marfa Sobakin, his third wife, who died just days after their wedding in 1571. In the opera, Ivan himself never utters a word. During his single appearance on stage, his identity is revealed though a traditional Russian melody heard in the orchestra. Yet the tsar is a looming presence throughout the drama, represented in the oppressive actions of his dreaded secret police, the oprichniks, who include some of the opera's most compelling characters.

World of Opera host Lisa Simeone presents The Tsar's Bride in a striking new production from London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In it, stage director Paul Curran moves the drama forward more than four centuries, setting the action in present-day Moscow. The stars include soprano Marina Poplavskaya as Marfa, baritone Johann Reuter as the ruthless oprichnik Gryaznoy and mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova as Marfa's tragic rival, Lyubasha.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story Of 'The Tsar's Bride'

The opera has four acts and ACT 1 opens at a banquet hosted by Grigory Gryaznoy, a powerful member of Tsar Ivan's secret police, the oprichniks. Gryaznoy is brooding. He's in love with young Marfa, but she's engaged to the nobleman Likov. Gryaznoy is determined to prevent their marriage, no matter what it takes.

Likov is among the guests at the banquet, and sings of the adventures he's had on a recent trip to Germany. Others in the room include a German doctor, Bomelius; another oprichnik, the ruthless Malyuta; and Gryaznoy's mistress, Lyubasha. She was kidnapped by the oprichniks from a small village, and entertains the gathering with a traditional folk song.

'The Tsar's Bride' at Covent Garden. i i

hide caption'The Tsar's Bride' at Covent Garden.

Bill Cooper/courtesy of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
'The Tsar's Bride' at Covent Garden.

'The Tsar's Bride' at Covent Garden.

Bill Cooper/courtesy of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

As the party winds down, Gryaznoy calls Bomelius aside — while Lyubasha stands in the shadows nearby to eavesdrop. Gryaznoy wants to know if Bomelius can whip up a love potion. Of course it's not for him, Gryaznoy says — he needs it for "a friend." Bomelius says he'll see what he can do.

Hearing this, Lyubasha fears that Gryaznoy has fallen in love with someone else. When all the guests are gone, she confronts him. He pushes her away coldly and leaves the house. Alone as the act ends, Lyubasha vows to find the woman Gryaznoy has fallen for and destroy her.

ACT 2 takes place on a Moscow street, where we can see both Marfa's house and the home of Dr. Bomelius. Superstitious neighbors are convinced that the doctor is some kind of sorcerer and up to no good.

Marfa is headed for home with her friend Dunyasha, and sings longingly about the return of Likov. Two men then appear on horseback, and one of them stares intently at Marfa. The men don't identify themselves, but the orchestra plays music associated with the tsar — hinting that the man with his eye on Marfa is Ivan himself.

When the two young women go into Marfa's house, Lyubasha appears outside. She's been watching, and suspects that Marfa is the woman Gryaznoy is now pursuing. She goes to Bomelius's house, and knocks at the door.

Who's Who

Marina Poplavskaya ............. Marfa
Ekaterina Gubanova ....... Lyubasha
Johann Reuter ............... Gryaznoy
Dmytro Popov ...................... Likov
Vasily Gorchkov .............. Bomelius
Elizabeth Woollett ........... Saburova
Paata Burchuladze ............ Sobakin
Alexander Vinogradov ........ Malyuta
Jurgita Adamonyte .......... Dunyasha

Royal Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Mark Elder, conductor

When the doctor answers, Lyubasha demands a potion that will destroy a woman's beauty. Bomelius says he can make one — but only if Lyubasha will become his lover. She refuses. But when she hears Marfa laughing, Lyubasha begins to reconsider. Then she sees Likov leaving Marfa's house — saying he'll be back tomorrow, and Gryaznoy will be with him. At that, Lyubasha again goes to Bomelius's door. He opens it, agrees to give her the potion, and takes her inside.

A crowd then appears on the street. They're running from the oprichniks, who threaten to destroy all the tsar's enemies.

As ACT 3 begins in Marfa's home, her plans to marry Likov are well underway. Her father Sobakin is discussing the wedding with Likov, and it seems the cunning Gryaznoy has agreed to serve as best man.

Still, they have yet to announce the betrothal in public. That's because the tsar himself is looking for a new wife. After considering some 2000 women, he has narrowed the field to 12, including Marfa and her friend Dunyasha. Until the tsar announces his choice, their futures are uncertain.

Dunyasha's mother Saburova enters, boasting that her daughter seems to have caught the tsar's eye. Likov is reassured, and a toast is suggested. Gryaznoy sneaks his potion into Marfa's glass and she drinks it. But with the celebration underway, the oprichnik Malyuta appears — and announces that the tsar has chosen Marfa as his bride. Marfa is bewildered, but she's now the future tsarina, and everyone kneels to her as the act ends.

ACT 4 takes place in the tsar's palace. Marfa has become seriously ill, and no one can find the cause. Gryaznoy appears with the bogus news that Likov has confessed to poisoning Marfa — and the all-too-real news that Likov was executed for his supposed crime. Hearing this, Marfa passes out. When she's revived, she's obviously disoriented and near death. She mistakes Gryaznoy for Likov, and speaks to him with deep affection.

Gyraznoy, who truly loves her, is overcome with guilt. He admits that he's the one who slipped something into Marfa's drink, saying he thought it was a love potion, so he's responsible for her illness. He goes to the violent oprichnik Malyuta, turns himself in, and asks for a gruesome punishment.

But Gryaznoy isn't the only one with a confession to offer. Lyubasha suddenly appears, admitting that she replaced the love potion with poison. She turns to Gryaznoy, saying she wants to die, and he stabs her. She dies smiling, saying, "You got me in the heart."

Gryaznoy is taken prisoner. As he's led away, Marfa is still delirious, and now seems close to death. Marfa looks at Gryaznoy fondly, still seeing him as Likov. She quietly tells him to "come again, tomorrow," and the opera ends.

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